STEM - new idea or old approach?

STEM, STEAM or however you want to say it is beginning to revolutionise the learning of students across the globe. More recently, educational jobs and titles that are specific to STEM are becoming more prevalent on job sites and email signatures. But what does it all mean? What is STEM and is it actually beneficial for student learning? Well first of all the jury is still out, though I am sure there are many studies happening now about the impact of STEM on student learning but are yet to be fully researched. 

Trawling through the amount of STEM-related resources on various professional learning networks I see a common trend in the activities and something that seems all too familiar. As we know things in society goes in waves, just like fashion and culture, education and approaches to teaching and learning do too. These practices are now being more enhanced by the development not necessarily due to new ideas in science or maths but the impact technology has on bringing those together in a more achievable way. Sure building paper towers or bridges out of popsicle sticks is great learning but this type of activity has been happening for years. 

Over the past few years, I have developed my own scientific learning and development around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Though a lot of this science curriculum was taught to me at a much higher age, the integration of certain physics and chemistry concepts are being taught much earlier with the assistance of technology to my Grade 5 students. The use of AR and VR to better display Newton’s Laws of Motion, or simply using a slow-motion feature of an iPad to record the chemical changes are beginning to make this content more accessible - sounds great hey?

One particular aspect of STEM that I really like is the way it allows an integrated approach to learning by encouraging educators to find common lines of focus between their subjects to make learning more accessible and relative. No longer are we so focused on learning Science in a laboratory or Maths from a textbook we are seeing teachers become more hands-on with their approach to learning. To me, this isn’t anything new though, I remember going outside and making and designing things at school that we would test and learn from, so this brings me back to my point - why do we need an acronym for just good teaching?

So this brings me to the key issue I have with the acronym STEM, the heavy focus on the subjects that it represents and shouldn't we be doing this anyway. There is a lot of educational research that supports this style of integrated learning approach, and depending on the delivery can be a form of guided inquiry. Did educators just get lazy? Busy?  Forced this way by external pressures of standardised testing or all of the above? There has been an obvious shift from teaching science-based concepts from textbooks as well as teaching maths with no practical elements to the 
real-world. Not that I am saying that all teachers were/are like this, but from my experience, the pressure is on to teach to the tests.  

This brings me to my final point, the key element I love about STEM is the distinct focus it places on integration and the effective teaching of key science and math skills in a hands-on way. This is why I actually like the acronym. It brings a focus back to the integration of subjects and a real-world connection to students learning. It places focus back on science and maths by making it more real and most importantly - FUN.

STEM allows students to learn, create, explore and evaluate their ideas… but can we drop the acronym and place the focus back on good teaching practice?